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Deadly Waters: Six of the Worst Shark Attacks in History

Written by Isabella Boston.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.

For as long as humans have been diving into open waters, fatal shark attacks have occurred. These attacks are relatively rare with roughly 70 occurring worldwide and only a fraction being fatal. Nonetheless, they do occur and when they happen, they leave many lives shattered, fearful, and tormented by the unforgettable aftermaths and stories to be told.

The earliest known record of a person surviving a shark attack dates to 1749 with many others occurring in centuries since. For example, the sinking of the American warship USS Indianapolis resulted in the death of hundreds being mauled and eaten by sharks. And, in 1984, a 33-year-old mother of four, Shirley Ann Durdin, was gruesomely attacked and killed in Australia. Her body never to be found.

Great White sharks are responsible for the majority of shark attacks followed by the Tiger and Bull sharks.

Six of the Worst Shark Attacks in History

1. Brook Watson (1749) ~ Havana Harbor, Cuba. Young Watson, a British seaman, 14, took a swim in the waters off Havana Harbor, Cuba. He was subsequently viciously attacked by a shark. According to witnesses, the shark attacked him, retreated, circled around, and attacked him again as crewmen tried to rescue him. Watson lived to tell his own tale but lost a leg from the incident. He later became a member of Parliament and was sworn in as London’s Lord Mayor. (Painting below is on display in Washington DC at the National Gallery of Art.)

“Watson and the Shark” by artist John Singleton Copley.

2. The Jersey Shore Attacks (1916) ~ Jersey Shore. During a heatwave along the beaches of the Jersey Shore, a string of shark attacks occurred. The first to happen was that of a 25-year-old man named Charles Vansant. While swimming in Beach Haven, at least one shark, if not more, attacked him shredding the flesh from his thigh. He later died from loss of blood.

Charles Vansant

Only five days later, 27-year-old Charles Bruder, a bell captain at the Essex & Sussex Hotel, was attacked by a shark off the beach at Spring Lake. He started to yell, “A shark bit me! Bit my legs off!” And these words were the last to be ever heard from Mr. Bruder.

On July 12, 1916, two more attacks occurred. A 12-year-old boy named Lester Stillwell was pulled underwater by a shark as he splashed in a creek with friends. Stanley Fisher, age 24, dived in to get him. The shark killed them both. Lester’s mutilated body was found two days later washed up 150 feet upstream.

3. USS Indianapolis (1945) ~ The Philippine Sea. On July 30, 1945, during the last days of World War II, a Japanese torpedo attacked and sunk the USS Indianapolis. It is thought that 900 men initially survived the attack but only 316 survived the sinking and subsequent days adrift in the shark infested waters. Witnesses reported, “blood-curdling” screams from victims being eaten. Survivor, Woody James, later recalled, “The sharks were around, hundreds of them…Everything would be quiet and then you’d hear somebody scream and you knew a shark had got him.” The disaster of the USS Indianapolis is known as the deadliest mass shark attack in history.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons. (August 1945) Survivors of the USS Indianapolis in Guam.

4. Rodney Fox (1963) ~ Australia. In 1963, Rodney Fox, an Australian Spear Fishing Champion, was attacked by a Great White shark while spear fishing at Aldinga Beach. His attack was so brutal that it is a miracle he survived. His abdomen was fully exposed, ribs completely broken on his left side, and his lung was ripped open. His tendons, fingers, and thumb on his right hand were all sliced, and a shark-embedded tooth remains in his wrist to this day. He was minutes away from dying of blood loss. His wounds required him to receive a total of 462 stitches. Fox wrote a book of his ordeal, Sharks, the Sea, and Me, and also designed and built the first underwater observation cage to study the Great White shark. He has led major expeditions over the course of 40 years to study and film sharks. His attack is regarded as one of the worst non-fatal shark attacks in history. He was inducted into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame in 2007.

Rodney Fox showing his scars after his 1963 stark attack.
Photo Credit: Jeff Rotma/ Alamy Stock Photo.Rodney Fox showing his scars after his 1963 stark attack.

5. The Pacific Coast Attacks (1984) ~ Four shark attacks occurred over a 15-day period off the Pacific Coast. The first was the gruesome death of an abalone diver named Omar Conger. He was resting in the water and gazing out to sea when his companion, Chris Rehm, saw a Great White surface and come up behind him. “It grabbed him from behind, and while shaking him violently, pulled him under the water,” Rehm later told researchers. The shark resurfaced, releasing Conger, and started to swim towards Rehm. He managed to pull his severely injured friend onto their dive mat, and he headed to the shore. Unfortunately, Conger had lost too much blood and died in the water.

6. Shirley Ann Durdin (1985) ~ Australia. Shirley Ann Durdin, a 33-year-old mother, was diving for scallops in Peake Bay, Australia when she was attacked by a Great White shark. Witnesses described the fish as being “20 feet long”. The massive shark ripped her in half in front of her husband and four children who helplessly watched from the shore. Rescuers later arrived but only found her headless torso floating in the water. Within minutes, the shark returned and consumed that too.

Shirley Ann Durdin.

Author Bio

Isabella Boston

Isabella Boston is a multi-talented writer and the Founder of Bella’s Attic Studio. She has several years of experience in content writing, copywriting, and social media strategies. She is the author of the romantic and rare memoir, Passion of Flames. Isabella is currently working to spread awareness on the dangers and inhumanity of human sex trafficking. She has special interests in fashion and beauty, health and wellness, and natural healing as it pertains to the body, mind and soul. When Isabella is not writing, she enjoys playing the violin, learning new languages (currently Italian), and reading books of substance.

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